The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have struggled on defense all season long. Their pass rush has been absent, their coverage has been incompetent, their linebackers have been inconsistent -- it's been a total mess. In his latest column over at Pewter Report, Scott Reynolds notes that the Bucs have responded to that by drastically simplifying their defense.
After starting the season running a lot of man coverage the Bucs have played a lot more Cover 2 over the past couple of weeks, especially against the Giants. The reason was because too many mental errors were happening when the Bucs were in man coverage and Cover 3. Those errors have forced Lovie Smith to scale things back and frequently play the more simple - yet predictable - Cover 2.
That has actually worked: the Bucs made far fewer mental errors the past few weeks, especially after benching Mike Jenkins and Johnthan Banks. Of course, mental errors aren't the only problem: the Bucs' cornerbacks simply aren't good enough to consistently cover anyone in man -- Johnthan Banks' play in particular has been disappointing, after a very strong end to the 2014 season.
But this is also ridiculous. Man coverage isn't more complicated than Cover 2. Cover 3 isn't some tremendously difficult zone coverage to get right. These are all basic elements of every single NFL defense, and the Bucs' secondary is filled with veterans. This should be second nature for almost every one of them. Moving to Cover 2 shouldn't make a difference, and yet it has. What does that say?
Playing a lot of zone coverage also means running a lot of four-man pass rush, but the Bucs don't have the talent across the defensive line to get pressure consistently that way. Which in turn allows quarterbacks to pick it apart with short and medium-depth throws. Meanwhile, they don't have the talent at cornerback to blitz and play man coverage either. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Of course, there's a reason why the Bucs don't have talent on defense: they haven't signed or drafted the right players. Which is curious, given the simple fact that Lovie Smith's defense has always relied on disciplined execution and quality play more than scheme. Lovie Smith is never going to make up for an individual player's deficiencies with his scheme -- his skill is to get talented players to play like a coherent unit. Though looking at recent results, perhaps that skill has evaporated as well.
But that's on Jason Licht, too. He has final say on who the Bucs draft and who they sign, as far as we know, but both he and Smith consistently emphasize that every decision is made by both of them, as a team. If one of them doesn't want to make a move, it doesn't get made. So both of them are responsible for the disastrous free agency signings, for their failure to capitalize on the cap space gained by releasing Darrelle Revis, for their failure to draft more than one defensive player, for their failure to get any kind of competent pass rush or cornerback help.
Both of them have until the end of the year to correct their mistakes. That's when the Glazers will make a decision on whether Licht and Smith will be allowed to survive until next year.